WASHINGTON, DC – Building on the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. Special Operations Command is refocusing on helping partner militaries across the geographic commands build special operations capacity, Socom’s commander reported.
The drawdown in Afghanistan will free up more special operators to support other theaters, Navy Adm. William H. McRaven said during a July 19 panel discussion at the 2013 Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colo.
McRaven reported that he already has sat down with all of the geographic combatant commanders to discuss their objectives and determine how more special operations forces can support them.
Toward that goal, Socom is returning to its pre-9/11 concept of aligning forces to specific geographic areas and providing them cultural and language training for that region, he said.
By necessity, special operators shifted their focus to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 12 years, McRaven said, and fluency in languages other than Arabic, Dari and Pashto suffered. To rebuild lost skill sets, the command is reinvigorating its language and cultural awareness program and aligning it to the theaters “so that the right people speak the right languages and understand the right cultures in the right regions,” the admiral added.
One of the big takeaways from Afghanistan has been the effectiveness of the command structure provided through the Special Operations Joint Task Force Afghanistan, he reported. It aligns all special operations missions across Afghanistan, to make them more coordinated and effective.
The task force has provided “effects that we hadn’t seen in the previous decade,” McRaven said. The challenge now, he told the forum, is to take the lessons learned and export them to other special operations missions around the world.
Special operators “will always be able to do the kinetic piece … better than anyone else in the world,” he said. “When somebody needs to rescue Americans or when someone needs to capture or kill the enemy, I think we have the best force in the world and will for a long time.”
McRaven acknowledged, however, that “that’s a small part of what we do in the special operations community.”
Building partner capacity is the larger mission, he reported, and it currently involves about 3,000 special operations forces in about 84 countries outside Afghanistan. Working in small teams, they are helping partner-nation militaries build special operations capacity so their sovereign governments can deal with their own problems without the need for U.S. forces, he said.
These are core special operations capabilities that the special operations community has been conducting “for a very, very long time,” McRaven said. “So any thought that this is a new idea is not correct,” he added.
What has changed is the fiscal environment, he noted. “Now, we’ve got to do it in a little more structured fashion,” McRaven said. “We have limited resources, [so] we’ve got to figure out where to apply those resources.”
Michael A. Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, joined McRaven for the panel discussion. A former Green Beret, Sheehan recalled being among only about 12 special operations advisors in El Salvador during its civil war. “I think in many ways, we’re going to go back to the future in terms of the SOF mission set,” he said.
Counterterrorism is actually a two-part effort, both with a special operations forces component, Sheehan explained.
“One is [that] we have to deny sanctuary to terrorists. We can’t let them sit and be comfortable, or they will be able to attack us strategically,” he said. “And secondly, we need to pressure the network. We need to attack the leaders, safe houses, training sites, their assets, lines of communications, et cetera.”
Typically, a special operations forces advisor works with a host-nation military to help train and equip the force and plan activities designed to deny space to the enemy, Sheehan said. “On the other side, we want to have a relationship, the training, advising, equipping for the host country’s kinetic action for their direct action against the enemy,” he explained.
The key, Sheehan said, is to identify the best way to train, equip and advise the host-nation forces so they can successfully conduct their own special operations missions.
“When we are successful in doing that, we have then pushed ourselves back into the secondary role and enabled host countries to defend their own country,” Sheehan said. “And that’s our goal for the next 10 years.”